Roll Tacks November 2010

It’s been hard to find many kind words for the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) in the past, particularly where their strategy for Olympic sailing has been concerned. Mostly this is because ISAF hasn’t had a strategy, but instead has allowed itself to be pushed around by the desires and ambitions of particular individuals, or the organisations that they represent.

This year, it was meant to be different. And you know what? It was! Delegates went to the annual conference to discuss radical changes to the Olympic format, and contrary to my lack of expectation, by and large they’ve actually make those changes.

This is still up for reassessment at the mid-year meeting next year in St Petersburg Russia, but the slate of Olympic events as listed below is not a bad place to start from:

Men's Board or kite board - evaluation of equipment
Women's board or kite board - evaluation of equipment
Men's one person dinghy - Laser
Women's one person dinghy - Laser radial
Men's 2nd one person dinghy - Finn
Men's skiff - 49er
Women's skiff - evaluation of equipment
Women's keelboat - Elliott 6m
Mixed multihull - evaluation of equipment
Mixed two person dinghy (spinnaker) - 470

Most exciting of these changes is the announcement of two mixed events, the multihull and the two-person dinghy. For years I’ve been asking why there can’t be mixed events in the Olympics, and always the answer has been that the International Olympic Committee doesn’t want or approve of mixed events. I wonder if anyone had ever bothered to ask the question. It seemed to have become the accepted wisdom that the IOC only approved of single gender events. When Phil Jones and his colleagues on ISAF’s Olympic Commission actually raised this question with members of the IOC, they found no objection to the idea.

Good news, although being given a mandate by the IOC to put forward a proposal for a mixed events doesn’t necessarily mean anything is going to happen when ISAF gets round to discussing it. My jaded expectation would be that some of the old farts on ISAF Council would simply stick with the status quo and dismiss mixed sailing as a silly idea.

But the mixed concept seems to have been broadly accepted, which is great news. Not that some of the existing teams in the 470 class will necessarily agree with me. Back at the 470 European Championships in Istanbul last September, I asked some sailors and coaches what they thought about the notion of becoming a mixed class.

My question was met with a pretty frosty reception. Which isn’t really that surprising, because asking some of the proven best men’s and women’s teams in the world what they think about breaking up their successful partnerships and starting all over again is really like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Certainly, boys and girls sailing together at Olympic level is going to be fraught with all kinds of emotional and team management issues. It will be important for team mates to be close, but not too close, if you know what I mean. However, the advantages will far outweigh the downsides. My prediction is that it will do wonders for women’s sailing.  When you analyse the numbers of participants in equivalent men’s and women’s sailing events, whether in the  470, the Laser singlehanders or the keelboats, it becomes clear that less than half the number of women choose to compete at Olympic level compared with the men.  When you look at it like that, you start to realise that achieving 50/50 male/female participation in the sport – one of the IOC’s desired aims for any of the Olympic sports  – is extremely difficult. At least when you have mixed events, you can’t have anything other than 50/50 participation.

Embarking on an Olympic campaign is a massive commitment, and for an ambitious female sailor, one of the big challenges has always been to find a partner with equal amounts of talent, drive and ambition to put together a worthwhile campaign. This will now become much easier.

The 470 class was reputed to be not particularly happy about being put forward as the mixed two-person dinghy. Bearing in mind that the 470 is set to reduce from two medals to one medal, it’s understandable that they might feel a bit disgruntled. But once they have got over that, they might start to realise the massive potential that this mixed opportunity has handed them.

The multihull community seemed more grateful for being given one of the mixed events, but then again they didn’t have a place at the table at all. At least now we have a catamaran back in the Olympics for Rio 2016.

These mixed events also mean that Olympic sailing will dovetail much more closely with amateur weekend sailing. Outside of the youth classes, which have tended to follow the Olympic classes in terms of being gender separate, take a look at the most popular amateur, adult doublehanded classes, and it tends to be the boats that lend themselves to boy/girl partnerships that thrive the best. Already we see a lot of Olympic talent showing up in some of the amateur classes like the RS200, where they tend to reconvene as boyfriend/girlfriend partnerships as a nice break from the pressures of the day job. Now, it’s very likely that we’ll see 470 partnerships taking time out of the Olympic circuit to do exactly the same, except that now they’ll be able to continue sailing together in the same regular partnership.

It will be really interesting to see what becomes of the 470 class. In the UK, it really has become a specialist class only for those focused on Olympic campaigning, while the Fireball is the equivalent trapeze doublehander that has continued to thrive in great numbers as an amateur class. I predict we’ll see an influx of boy/girl teams from some of the amateur classes who now want to see how they go in the 470, and the same will be true of whichever multihull they choose for the Olympic berth.

The mixed sailing was one element of a number of changes that we saw proposed in Athens. In the selection of Olympic events for 2016, men’s and women’s boards, men’s and women’s Lasers, men’s and women’s skiffs were put forward on a slate of six “core” events. So suddenly, after sticking its nose up against the glass for the past few years and getting tantalisingly close to being accepted without ever being invited in, now the women’s skiff has been given a seat at the top table. An evaluation trial will need to take place to determine the best boat for the purpose. The 29XX has done a good job of establishing itself as the front runner, but it can expect a tough time against some of the other candidates, such as the Rebel Skiff and a souped-up version of the RS 800.

The voting process in Athens saw that core slate of six through first, followed by the two mixed events we’ve already discussed. With just 10 events in total, it was down to four other events to fight for those two remaining places. The women’s keelboat and the Finn won those berths, banishing a second women’s single hander and, most controversially of all, a men’s keelboat from the line-up.

The exclusion of the keelboat is the most dramatic example of just how much ISAF has changed since its ill-fated Annual Conference of 2007 in Portugal. That was the time when the Star narrowly won the vote against the Tornado, seeing the multihull ejected from the games.

The Star class took its defeat with good grace, although the decisions in Athens are not yet set in stone, and we could yet see a keelboat make a return to the slate at the midyear meeting in May.  Although I have few complaints about the decisions made in Athens, it certainly looks like a very strange and unbalanced line-up, having a women’s keelboat where women have shown little appetite for keelboat racing, while the men have no keelboat at all. If there are going to be any changes from the current roster of events, then surely it’s going to be here. Question is, if the men’s keelboat comes back in, what goes out in its place? The Finn looks the most vulnerable, and yet under the current set of events it is the only place a sailor weighing more than 85 kg could hope to be competitive.

What would my solution be? Keep the Finn for the big boys, and have one keelboat category – four sailors: two girls and two boys.

Outside of the Olympics there was a proposal to reduce the number of international classes, and therefore also the number of world championships on the sailing calendar. This holds massive implications for many of our favourite amateur classes, but this submission was deemed to have been poorly drafted and didn’t get very far in the discussion. However, it has not moved off the ISAF radar entirely, and we can expect to see this debate crop up again some time in the future. Better win that class world championship while you still can!

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